Hawaiʻi Appleseed update: Economic Justice

text by

Gavin Thornton

photo by

Josiah Kekoanui Patterson

We need policy decisions and action driven by facts, data, and clear thinking. We need solutions informed by the people on the front lines of the issues and those who bear the brunt of the impact. We need to come together to take on problems that are too big for any one person, entity, or sector. And we need to make sure no one is left behind. You’ve helped ensure that we are here and ready to mount a quick, robust response to the crisis. Here’s what that’s looked like so far:

Collaborative problem solving and collective action

Last week, we sent this memo to Senator Schatz, Governor Ige, and leadership in the state house and senate. In it, we summarized recommendations on how to prioritize expenditures of the billions in federal relief funds coming to the state to ensure their optimal use. The memo was developed after soliciting input from 60+ Hawaiʻi nonprofits, and incorporates our own policy research and concepts shared by our national partners.

Earlier this month, we hosted a video conference with 20+ social service providers and the heads of the Hawaiʻi Department of Human Services and the Honolulu Department of Community Services to identify ways to: (1) increase flexibility of existing social service contracts to respond to pressing COVID-19 needs; (2) ensure timeliness of payments (a chronic problem that will have even more dire consequences during this time of crisis); and (3) prepare for quick and effective mobilization of federal resources.

That work was done by PHOCUSED—Appleseed’s newest project—which is a membership-based network of social service providers aimed at building grassroots engagement of providers and the populations they serve. When we took on PHOCUSED as a project of Appleseed in November, I knew that connecting grassroots engagement with grass tops systems change work would be important. I didn’t imagine how urgent the need would become.

Getting food to the people that need it

Our work over the years on addressing hunger has positioned us to help meet the most basic of the growing needs of Hawaiʻi’s people—access to food. There’s been quite a bit of media coverage on our work with community partners to open sites that serve free meals to children when the school meals they normally rely on aren’t available—here’s one article.

As our partners are on the ground are trying to get food to the people that need it—keiki, kupuna, and the many people that have lost their jobs—we are working to coordinate their efforts and help them understand the federal laws and state proclamations that are changing by the day as this pandemic unfolds.

Minimizing economic impacts

Before Hawaiʻi’s businesses started shutting down, Beth Giesting—our director of the Hawaiʻi Budget and Policy Center (HBPC)—was working on a plan to get them going again. Her work has been informed by a report she released last year on lessons learned from the Great Recession. Before the legislature closed, she provided Hawaii’s policy makers with a series of briefs on how to ease the impact of COVID-19 in Hawai'i and followed them up with an op-ed in the Star Advertiser urging the government to take decisive action as the economy falters.

Protecting public health by preventing outbreaks in Hawaiʻi’s jails and prisons

Across the country, at the urging of the CDC, states are taking measures to address the inmate overcrowding in the wake of COVID-19 to protect public health. As this article quoted Tom Helper, the director of litigation for our Lawyers for Equal Justice (LEJ) project, “All it’s going to take is one officer to bring in a case from home…and then it’s going to spread like wildfire through the institution.”

Prison overcrowding, coupled with COVID-19, poses a grave threat, not just to the inmates, but to prison staff and to the public. That is why, in partnership with the ACLU and the Office of the Public Defender, LEJ filed a petition to the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court urging the release of non-violent inmates under specific criteria in order to mitigate a potential outbreak in Hawaiʻi jails.

This is an unprecedented moment in history. It’s a time of grave threats, but also of opportunity. We are doing all we can to ward off the threats, while steering the change that inevitably flows from disruption toward increased collaboration, better decision-making, and greater equity. The intensity of the moment has deepened my gratitude for you and our other partners in this work. Despite all the difficulties we are facing, I am optimistic about what we can accomplish together.

Gavin Thornton

Executive Director
Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice